Every American ought to have had high hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency. An unsuccessful administration is bad for the country and, given America’s global status, it’s bad for the world too. That’s not to say you should have supported his entire agenda. Rather, as with Bill Clinton, you might have hoped the realities of governing would set in and to succeed he’d be forced to adjust accordingly.
The sad reality, though, is that whether you supported Obama’s policies or not, you’re justified in being disappointed with the results of his presidency. Some good goals included improving America’s image abroad, ending wars, resetting our relationship with Russia, and there were some useful yet more minor ones such as reducing unnecessary occupational licensing requirements. But in all these areas, things haven’t changed or they’ve gotten worse. More of America’s friends no longer respect us and more of our enemies no longer fear us. We’re still engaged in the wars Obama vowed to end (Iraq and Afghanistan), and our forces are now engaged in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria.
If you were a supporter of other major policies, the results haven’t been great either. Obamacare is economically unsustainable, a majority of Americans continue to disapprove of it, and it’s on the verge of being repealed. No immigration reform was passed in the legislature and the president’s executive orders on the subject have been ruled unconstitutional in the courts. Climate and gun control legislation failed, and Guantanamo Bay will still be open when he leaves office.
Some argue that the reason Obama leaves behind such a small legacy—and that his few remaining accomplishments may be short-lived—is because of unprecedented Republican obstructionism. But once the voting is over, politics is about public policies. While the president was masterful on the campaign trail, he was without doubt lousy when it came to public policy and its implementation.
In Obama’s first two years in office, Democrats had a super-majority in the Senate and a majority in the House. He didn’t need Republicans to pass whatever he chose to implement. Instead of trying to court Republican votes on healthcare reform by involving them in the bill, Obama and congressional leaders did the opposite. They shut out Republicans and hastily drafted partisan legislation that was so controversial it was necessary to buy Democratic votes in swing states—recall the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase”.
In other words, obstructionist Republicans weren’t the problem, it was Obama’s policies. Time and again he struggled to get members of his own party on board with them. Recall his efforts on gun control following Sandy Hook, which failed because the president and Harry Reid overreached and couldn’t get fellow Democrats to support their bill.
To the extent that votes by members of Congress represent the views of their constituents, Republicans and 39 House Democrats who voted against Obamacare did their jobs. Dozens of Democrats who voted for the bill did not, and paid the price when they came up for re-election, which is a primary reason the party is in a historically weak position today.
When Obama makes the case for his proposals rather than for his election, he’s just not very good, whether at home or abroad. For example, it wasn’t Republican obstructionism that caused him to lose when he went to Copenhagen to convince the world to sign on to a climate deal or lobby the Olympic committee to pick Chicago, or when he spoke to Britain from 10 Downing Street and asked its citizens to vote to remain in the EU. To govern successfully, you need to propose excellent policies or be talented at getting support for them. Great presidents do both; Obama wasn’t good at either.
Democrats and Republicans have for years justifiably complained that Obama failed to spend time building relationships and coalitions on Capitol Hill the way presidents usually do. Think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, George W. Bush and the improbable Ted Kennedy, or Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Rather than trying to find common ground with others, Obama usually did the opposite.
Republicans thought the White House was extending an olive branch when in 2011 it invited key Republicans to George Washington University to discuss the national debt. Instead Obama famously attacked them in person. Another time he unceremoniously called Paul Ryan’s budget a “meanwich” and a “stinkburger.” And on one rare occasion, when bipartisan agreement with then-House Speaker John Boehner was within reach (and in spite of opposition to it by many Republicans), Obama changed the terms of the deal at the last minute, resulting in its collapse and hastening the end of Boehner’s leadership.
Because of his inability to win policy debates and get the votes he needed in Congress for his agenda, Obama resorted to executive orders, or as he put it his phone and his pen. While this approach might result in short-term “victories” it seldom results in a lasting legacy.
Indeed, he leaves office with an overall losing record in the Supreme Court and has lost there more than any modern president. As Ilya Shapiro has helpfully documented, he has only won 45 percent of his cases, whereas going back to the 1960s, the White House has won more than 60 percent of cases it has argued. All recent presidents have winning records, including Bill Clinton (63%), who like Obama faced a conservative majority in the court. Worse still for the outgoing White House, as Shapiro notes, it’s lost a remarkable 44 cases unanimously.
The results of the president’s approach to governing and his poor policies speak for themselves. Bret Stephens summarized how the president fared on the foreign stage:
Mr. Obama promised a responsible end to the war in Iraq. We are again fighting in Iraq. He promised victory in Afghanistan. The Taliban are winning. He promised a reset with Russia. We are enemies again. He promised the containment of Iran. We are witnessing its ascendancy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He promised a world free of nuclear weapons. We are stumbling into another age of nuclear proliferation. He promised al Qaeda on a path to defeat. Jihad has never been so rampant and deadly.
On the domestic front, Obama is the first president in history to have not a single year of economic growth above 3%. GDP growth has averaged below 2% annually, and while he entered office with a recession and deserves a pass in his first several years in office, over 8 years he’s presided over the weakest economic recovery in modern times. To understand what such weak growth means, consider these numbers from Veronique de Rugy: If the economy grows at 2% annually over the next 35 years, average per capita GDP will increase to $92,000. If it grows at 4%, we’ll have average per capita GDP of $100,000 in almost half that time (18 years).
When it came to matters of race, the president seldom heeded the advice he offered journalists after Russia (or Russian proxies) shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over the Ukraine in 2014: “I think it’s very important for us to make sure that we don’t get out ahead of the facts.” On the contrary, he was forced to call a “Beer Summit” at the White House after he inflamed matters relating to an incident in Cambridge between a police officer and a black professor when he heedlessly commented:
I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say…that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.
This behavior continued throughout his presidency, with prejudicial comments on the Trayvon Martin case and others on into 2016. While race is certainly still an issue in the country, the president hasn’t helped make matters better. Indeed, Myron Magnet makes a compelling argument in City Journal that he’s set back American race relations by 50 years.
To this domestic record we could add: A stimulus that didn’t stimulate; shovel ready projects that weren’t shovel ready; a “Summer of recovery” that wasn’t; an unemployment rate that wouldn’t go above 8%, but did; doctors or insurance plans that you liked, but in fact couldn’t keep.
Great presidents can easily be identified by short one-liners such as, “He won the Cold War and strengthened America” or, “He ended slavery and reunited the country.” Unfortunately for this president, an apt line would be, “He governed like an emperor and he had no clothes.”